The difference eight hours can make.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam hero and multi-millionaire investor, was long perceived as a brash and outspoken politician. While many pundits predicted that Hagel, who is President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense, wouldn’t be setting off any fireworks at his nomination hearing, it was widely expected that he would present a strident and comprehensive defense to the anticipated criticism.
Much to the astonishment of his backers and the bafflement of the pundits, Hagel came across during eight hours of questioning as ill-prepared and weak. Under withering criticism from pro-Israel Republican senators, Hagel, a former Republican himself, alternated between expressing regret and claiming that he just couldn’t remember what he had done and why.
What was perhaps the most striking moment of the day was when Senator John McCain, who once was a friend of Hagel before they parted ways, engaged Hagel in an exchange about the surge in Iraq that was so acrimonious that it sounded like a prosecutor questioning a particularly hostile witness.
But Hagel’s troubles were hardly limited to McCain.
Even before Thursday’s hearing, Hagel had apologized for his infamous remark about the “Jewish lobby.” He would do so several times on Thursday morning.
But it was the following exchange with Senator Lindsey Graham that raised eyebrows:
Sen. GRAHAM: Now, let’s talk a little bit about statements you’ve made. You’ve explained this a bit. You said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. I’m not an Israeli senator; I’m a United States senator. This pressure makes us do dumb things at times.” You said “the Jewish lobby” should not have been — that term shouldn’t have been used, it should have been some other term. Name one person, in your opinion, who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate.
“Mr. HAGEL: Well, first —
Sen. GRAHAM: Name one.
Mr. HAGEL: I don’t know.
Sen. GRAHAM: Well, why would you say it?
Mr. HAGEL: I didn’t have in mind a specific person.
Sen. GRAHAM: Do you agree it’s a provocative statement, that I can’t think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said? Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby.
Mr. HAGEL: I have already stated that I regret the terminology I used.
Sen. GRAHAM: But you said back then, “It makes us do dumb things.” You can’t name one senator intimidated. Now give me one example of the dumb things that we’re pressured to do up here.
Mr. HAGEL: We were talking in that interview about the Middle East, about positions, about Israel.
Sen. GRAHAM: So give me an example of where we’ve been intimidated by the Israeli Jewish lobby to do something dumb regarding the Mideast, Israel or anywhere else.
Mr. HAGEL: Well, I can’t give you an example.
Sen. GRAHAM: Thank you. Do you agree with me you shouldn’t have said something like that?
Mr. HAGEL: Yes, I do. I’ve already said that.
* * *
It was downhill from there on.
As the day wore on, Hagel’s image as a fierce warrior faded away and was rapidly replaced by a stumbling buffoon unsuccessfully trying to dodge the arrows rapidly being shot in his direction.
While his defenders can claim — with a certain amount of accuracy — that at least Hagel didn’t pour any more oil onto the fire, and didn’t make any additional incriminating statements, it doesn’t look like he managed to win over any of his critics either.
So far Hagel has given no indication that he is willing to withdraw his nomination, though such a move would certainly be welcomed in many circles.
Unless enough Republicans agree to support a filibuster, which currently seems unlikely, it appears that despite his dismal performance, the Democratic majority in the Senate — along with at least two GOP Senators — will confirm Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense.
But President Obama would do well to take notice of the numerous valid objections that were raised during Thursday’s hearing.
No matter who will be the next Secretary of Defense, the buck ultimately stops at the Oval Office. It is the obligation of the President of the United States to ensure that men and women who work for him, including each and every member of his cabinet, fulfills their duties in a way that serves the best interest of this country.
As one of America’s closest allies — and the only democracy — in the Middle East, the relationship between the United States and Israel is crucial for the security interests of the American people. It is up to the President to make certain that the Secretary of Defense plays his role in maintaining this relationship.
So if he is confirmed, which Hagel will serve as the head of the Pentagon? The old Hagel along with his long list of anti-Israeli comments and votes? Or the new apologetic, devotedly pro-Israel Hagel?
Ultimately, it will be President Obama who will be responsible to see that it will be the latter.